Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A thrilling spook

We’ve reached that time of the year again. Although the days are lengthening, opportunities for decent rides are as fleeting as the evening sun.

A year ago at this time, and the year prior, Limerick was calm. “At last, she is older and calmer,” I thought back then. I realize that I was wrong. She wasn’t older and calmer—she was sore. The arthritis creeping into her joints didn’t allow her to be silly.

Fast forward to now. January was bitterly cold. On the warmest days, I would groom Lim and turn her loose in the indoor arena for a blanket-free roll. On the coldest days—the days I had to dress in three layers on bottom and five on top, with two pairs of wool socks (and Toastie Toes!) in muck boots, my head wrapped in a scarf, hat, and hood, the air painful to inhale, my eyes watering, my fingers quickly going numb within my holey winter barn gloves—I could only hurry to the barn, kiss her on the nose, feed her, and hurry home.

She was turned out most days.

February was a bit better, temperature-wise. But the cycles of warm(er) and freezing temperatures created many slick spots and lots of frozen mud in the pasture. The horses didn’t go out as much.

In the past, Limerick was only ride-able in the latter stages of winter when she was both turned out daily and ridden often. Even then, each ride was a potential adventure, especially when the wind howled or melting slates of ice slid off the barn roof.

For the past two years this did not hold true.

And now, it is once again the case.

Two weeks ago, the temperatures were fairly warm (low 40’s) and Lim had been going out daily for some time. It was a perfect evening for a ride! The wind blew hard as a warm front moved in, and although I couldn’t hear it, I could sense that there was a month’s worth of snow and ice sliding off the metal roof of the indoor riding arena.

As I groomed and tacked her up, Lim was extremely alert. The barn owner’s daughter was working a horse in the dark outdoor arena, and from where Lim stood as I got her ready, she had a fuzzy view of the outdoor arena. Horses can see much better than humans in the dark, but not if they are standing in a lighted barn looking outside.

Lim’s head was up and her eyes were enormous. I offered her a treat and she took it between her lips but did not chew. I realized that a calm ride was not in the cards but how bad could it be? When Limerick was young and spooked, in less than the blink of an eye, she would bunch her Thoroughbred muscles into a mighty ball and explode forward with such a startling display of power that

(fortunately I, too, have cat-like reactions and during these tremendous spooks, was able to reflexively sit tight and hang on. By the time Stop this mare went through my head, Lim would be far away from her starting point—usually partway into one of her fatal 90-degree turns at a dead gallop)

there was really nothing I could do.

But she was older and calmer now, wasn’t she?

In the indoor arena, Lim bravely held herself together. The wind howled and the ice skittered off the metal arena roof, and she trembled in my hands. Her muscles were tightly-wound wires. I was gentle. I soothed her with my hands and voice. I thought of what I wanted to do, rather than doing it. And you know what? It worked.

Until a cat jumped down from the short arena wall by the viewing area and the taunt wires of Lim’s muscles snapped and suddenly, explicitly, our centers of gravity were not aligned and I realized that I was falling (but my core, and my own cat-like reflexes, were ahead of me and righted me) and she, we, were flying sideways into the air, her head so high, her long black mane a whirlwind before me. I was back on the four-year-old filly I first sat on almost thirteen years ago, her lean powerful frame narrow between my legs, her body like a finely tuned string instrument.

And then she was standing in place, forty feet from where we were a half second prior, blowing hard, snorting at the wall the cat had jumped down from. Her heart hammered between my knees, her muscles tensing up again.

I need to get off now, I thought. Now. She’s ready to explode again.

We were near the door at the back of the arena and it began to bang in the wind. I could see it banging. Lim’s head—pricked ears, wide eyes, snorting nostrils and all—swiveled towards the door. I could feel the roaring fire rage harder within her and knew we were


to another spook. She swiveled her head back towards the arena wall and snorted at the long-gone cat. She wanted to save us both from the monsters but we were cornered.

I let the reins drape—loose, but not so loose that I would be screwed if she took off again. I stroked her furry high neck, my hand easily going to her poll.

“It’s okay, sweetheart, nothing will hurt you. It’s okay, we’re okay,” I said. I was calm. I had to get off but I knew that at that moment, the action of swinging my right leg over the saddle could set her off again, and I’d be trapped with one foot in a stirrup, one foot on the ground. I had to get her calm first and that could only be done if I was relaxed. I stroked her neck and talked to her. Her heart slowed. Her breathing slowed.

Finally, I was able to carefully swing my leg over and dismount. I walked her back to the arena wall (at the sight of it, she snorted in alarm until I touched it). I put the lunge line over her bridle. I wanted to end the ride on a good note, but it would have to be on the ground.

She was okay. She moved freely. Her head was tucked low. But I could see her eyes rolling to and fro, and one ear—the outside ear—flicking about even as her inner ear remained on my voice. I could not hear what she was hearing but I knew it had to be spectacular. Howling wind and sliding ice. Maybe random sections of the arena—the doors, a loose board—creaking and banging.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the orange tabby fur of the cat.

I didn’t blink but I barely saw it. One second Lim was lunging before me—tense but okay—and the next second she was twenty feet away, the lunge line long and taunt between us, her legs splayed, her head high, her wide eyes and nostrils quivering.


A decade ago I would have been dismayed by such behavior. But now? I’m thrilled! After all the pain, all the heartbreak and worry, I am downright thrilled that my 18-year-old (per the Jockey Club) mare can move like the fleet-footed filly I knew so long ago.

Gone is the creaky, thin, arthritic mare of a year ago. In her place is a spirited, sleek, muscular thing full of Thoroughbred spirit and power.

I am thrilled!

But I’m not riding her without caution until she has been turned out consistently…and the temperatures rise for good!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

George's Story

As you may know by now, I am not ignorant of the beauty that nature offers. Everything—from a single elegant blade of wild grass to spectacular lightning storms—can, and will, take my breath away. And I have observed hundreds of sunsets—from the iron balconies of New Orleans, the desert of New Mexico, the mountains of Colorado and Utah (the most beautiful state in America, in my opinion) , and the streets of New York City and yes, Chicago.

But on Friday evening, February 6th, as I was just another commuter sitting in traffic in just one of many Chicago suburbs, I saw the most beautiful sunset that I’ve ever seen in my life.

It began as bright pink streaks in the sky and I remember thinking that it was the kind of color that only looked good in nature. I looked forward as the car in front of me moved. When we stopped again, I looked back at the sky.

As I watched, another world materialized before me. In the distance were mountains—all pink, orange, and red, all sharply defined. I realized that these mountains were actually tremendous sand dunes, and a vicious sandstorm was raging on one side of the mountains. There was a purple valley between the sand dunes and I, the type of purple that the Rocky Mountains become when you see them from afar. I realized that we commuters were on another mountain, and that the reverse was true—if you looked down from atop a mountain, the land below would look purple. The wild sandstorm raged on in the distance. I looked deeper and deeper. The car in front of me disappeared, the stores by me disappeared. The sand dunes had startling clarity. I could see every wave, every shadow, even the grains of sand. The sandstorm was so huge that, had it been real, it would have stretched hundreds of thousands of feet into the air.

Then the brake lights of the car in front of me disappeared and I realized the light had turned green and for the first time in my life, I was disappointed that the traffic was moving.

When I looked again, the tremendous sand dunes with the enormous sandstorm and the purple valley in between us had disappeared. We were back on flat earth. There were only subtle streaks of pink against an encroaching midnight blue blanket of night sky.

Then I thought about George. I had just seen the most beautiful sunset of my life and George, in his feline way, was not here to experience it. The sadness was sudden and hard. He was one day too late…or was he?

It was the winter of 1998-1999. The snow had, over the past weeks, accumulated by the foot and the bitter artic air had settled in to stay.

Early one morning, my dad told me there was a black and white cat on the deck outside. In this weather? The deck was a maze of pathways dug through the deep snow—more for our four indoor-outdoor cats rather than us humans—and it took me a few moments to find the black and white cat among the piles of snow and sharp early morning shadows.

He—and it was definitely a tom—was not on the deck but beside it, beneath the large picture window I was looking out of. He huddled against the cold. I tapped the window glass and he looked up at me.

He was a large black and white ‘tuxedo’ cat and possibly the thinnest, sorriest-looking thing I had ever seen with my own eyes. He could have been handsome but his face was mangled and swollen. One ear looked more like black cauliflower than a cat ear. The thick tomcat cheeks and neck were instantly recognizable but the rest of him was all bones, with missing patches of fur and black lumps of scabs here and there. It was obvious to me that he had been in many fights…and had lost most of them.

But his eyes had no hint of fight within them. They were large and soft and worried. They pleaded with me through the glass.

Strays had come and gone over the years. Our cats seemed to attract them. We did our best to not feed them but occasionally there would be one that visited time and time again over the course of a few weeks. Only then, and rarely, would we consider giving the cat food and water. We did not want to encourage them to stay, but we were not cold and could not turn a blind eye to an animal in genuine need. In the end, the alpha cat of our resident tribe would eventually scare the stray off for good.

Within the eyes of this black and white tomcat, I recognized not just need but urgent need. He was not here to fight. He was here to survive.

I had a strong urge to feed him and provide him with warm water, so I did.

And the next morning, before school, I fed him again. And again the following morning. My dad, who was often up before me, would eye me in a “Your mom won’t approve” way but I knew that he, my dad, did approve.

Every morning the black and white tom would be waiting either beneath the picture window or at the far corner of the deck. He would wait patiently and not approach the food and water bowls I set out until I had retreated back into the house. Somehow, I knew that he was really not afraid, but respectful.

Before long, my dad was feeding the cat as well. My mom did not but she would watch the cat through the window.

“Don’t feed him!” my mom said, but with a hint of a smile. My brother stayed out of the whole affair but he, too, felt sorry for the cat. The beat-up, starving tom had won us all over.

And the strangest thing? It’s something that we still talk about, something we still marvel at. None of our four cats seemed to mind the presence of the black and white tom. The most flabbergasting thing was our alpha cat, Connie. Connie was all business. She was notorious for instantly disliking any other cat besides herself (and Tiger, remember Tiger? But that’s a story for another day). She did not hesitate to fight for her territory and her orange tabby ears had the chips and scars to prove it.

It was her custom to be let out the first thing every morning. She would return a short while later then ask to be let out again. Initially, we worried about what she would do when she came across the black and white tom huddled among the huge piles of snow and refused to let her outside when he was around. But she protested—loudly. Once we realized that the tom probably didn’t have a single aggressive bone in his body, we let her out. She trotted outside, paused to look at him, and trotted on. We were astonished. Normal Connie behavior was to hiss, to chase, to throw a tantrum. When the tom saw Connie, he respectfully creeped back to the far corner of the deck.

It’s your territory. I don’t want to fight you for it, he seemed to say. And he kept his word.

The snow thawed and we continued to feed the tom, who slept beneath the deck at night, no doubt in a nest of old leaves. While no longer a bag of bones, he was still skinny. It also became obvious that he had a raging infection in one leg, which was grossly swollen down to the foot and very painful for him to move. No wonder he had come to us for food. Even if he could find small animals among all the snow and in the bitter sub-zero temperatures, he would have had no way of running after them. We knew that if we did nothing more than feed him, he would become extremely sick.

By then my mom had long resigned to feeding the tom, and even fed him herself. She worked as a receptionist at an animal hospital and we decided that she should bring him in and have his wounds looked at.

None of us had ever touched the tom—he always maintained a respectful distance—but my mom reported that she had no difficulties whatsoever getting him into a carrier.

Of course, you cannot have a family of dedicated cat lovers take a stray, wounded cat—a kind one that they had been feeding for months, no less—to the vet only to put him right back outside. He was tested for FeLV, guessed to be about five years old, neutered, vaccinated, had various abscesses drained, and was sent home with antibiotics and a name. The staff of the animal hospital, who were smitten by the tom’s laid-back charm and handsome two-toned face, took note of his massive shoulders and neck and named him George, after the boxer.

When I arrived home from school that day, I found George laying in a pool of sunshine in the family room, one white paw stretched out, looking at the deck outside the glass sliding door with relaxed, half-closed eyes. At last, he was on the inside looking out. At last, he was home. I put a hand on his head and he looked up at me, happy. It was as if I had petted him a thousand times before.

Where had he come from? We had speculated on the question when we first discovered George outside, and we speculated again. He was so kind, so gentle. There was no way he had been a stray his entire life. Maybe he had gotten lost as a kitten. Maybe he had been neglected and decided to just leave. Maybe his prior owners didn’t care to neuter him but were tired of him marking his territory in the house and kicked him out.

Whatever the reason, with us, he was where he belonged. And he knew it.

George was a gentle giant. He wrestled with the other cats but let them win. He was always good to hug and hold. He did surprise us on occasion, however. We quickly found out that he loathed dogs with a burning passion when he climbed up a horrified neighbor’s leg to get at the Labrador puppy in her arms. He chased the Jack Russell terrier next door until she was whimpering and crying. And I’ll never forget the time I saw a usually-placid George jump four feet into the air to catch a dove in mid-flight. And that handsome face! It was impossible to not fall in love. George was beloved by my family. On February 5, 2009, at the estimated age of 15 years old, he passed away in the arms of my parents.

Looking back to a decade ago, I now know just how dire George’s situation had to be. Realizing that his life was at sake, he went against his unintrusive nature and asked us for help. We gave it to him, and in turn, he gave us ten wonderful years. So thank you, George, for taking a chance with us.

And maybe, just maybe, that gorgeous sunset was his thank-you to me.

A couple weeks after taking him in,
George enjoys the sunshine outside,

A month later, he returned to the vet for
some plastic surgery on his cauiflower ear.
Cats are not allowed on the table in
our house, but here, one look in poor George's
eyes forgives all.

Receiving one of countless hugs in 2001.